|Sunita Menon with a guest on her show Kosmiic Chat and (above) Ma Prem Usha holds up a pack of tarot cards
Meenakshi Rani has the act just right. With a flick of her hands, she spreads out the mysterious-looking pack of cards on a black velvet tablecloth. A cup of steaming jasmine tea is placed by your side as she reaches out for another pack. Out pops a card that has the picture of a king clutching a trident on a bright red background. At the bottom of the card is the symbol of a ram. 'There are areas in your life where you are vulnerable. Don't go into aggression till the phase of Aries gets over,' says Rani.
You've been to an astrologer who has checked out the configuration of the stars when you were born. And you've even played the numbers game with the numerologists and changed the spelling of your name like Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa and Shobhaa D'. Now, it's time to shuffle the tarot pack.
Rani is one of a new breed who've imported a Western occult practice and given it an Eastern face. Last month, she caused a small stir by going on television and predicting that India would lose against Pakistan at the Mohali Test match. 'All the tarot readers and astrologers at the time were assuring the cricket-crazy nation that their team would win,' she says smugly.
She isn't the only one who's getting TV time with the tarot cards. Look at ex-air hostess Sunita Menon who has suddenly been transformed into a glamorous tarot card reader for the television era. Her show ' Kosmiic Chat ' on Zoom channel tries to combine starpower (with guests like Tusshar Kapoor and Bikram Saluja) and the occult.
The result is that a superstitious nation is slowly adding tarot card reading to its pack of options. Rani, for instance, is booked choc-a-bloc and sometimes meets upto 10 clients every day. 'When I do a chat, there are 1,500 hits in a minute. It's crazy. You can't handle it,' says Rani, 'The phone doesn't stop ringing.'
The queen of tarot is probably Ma Prem Usha who has been shuffling the packs for several years. Usha, who writes a tarot column for a leading newspaper, is an Oshoite and she started tarot after a friend read her cards. She says, 'Tarot has come a long way from the time I started. Now, so many people are into tarot. That alone is proof of the fact that the concept has really picked up. People from all walks of life ' lawyers, doctors, housewives, students ' come for tarot sessions.'
And, if you are expecting a gypsy woman with a wrinkled face, clad in Romany-style clothes, think again. Tarot card readers, a la Indienne, are mostly a glamorous bunch ' and they are smartly dressed in everyday clothes. Menon appears on the small screen in glitzy designer clothes and Rani is smartly turned-out and extremely articulate. So, for that matter, is Pinky Vaid, who has also established herself as a serious player in the tarot game. Says Usha, 'The tarot is a Western concept. So there has always been a pre-conceived notion that the reader is a mysterious figure you are likely to dread rather than go to for advice. But that's no longer true now. Look at me, I wear a sari like any other Indian woman.'
What has contributed to the rise of the tarot readers' For a start, there's the unavoidable truth that even as science uncovers more wonders daily, people around the world are turning to everything from New Age remedies to the occult. And Indians who are deeply superstitious, are willing to try anything new as they attempt to combat the ups and downs of everyday life.
But in India, there's an additional factor ' the movies and the stars. Tarot is the latest fad in tinseltown, with adherents like producer-director Karan Johar and the czarina of the small screen, Ektaa Kapoor. There are also other high-profile fans like designer Manish Malhotra who's joined the queue to meet Menon for future forecasts.
|Pinky Vaid (top) in a session with a client and (above) Meenakshi Rani lays down her cards on the table
In addition, there's also the media that is reaching deeper into people's lives with every passing day. Newspapers now carry tarot columns and Menon has been conducting her celebrity tarot reading sessions on TV. 'People now are much more open to new things and I credit the media for bringing about this change,' says Menon.
Adds Rani, 'I read somebody's cards on the flight to Chennai. Then one day, I got a call from an editor who wanted me to do tarot readings for his newspaper. The person whose cards I'd read on the flight had talked to his acquaintances about it. Somehow it reached the editor's ears.'
All these tarot readers have one thing in common ' they all agree that the cards have changed the course of their lives. 'It is always the tarot which chooses you, not the other way around,' insists Rani who became involved in it after a family friend read her cards during an after-dinner session.
Similarly, Menon started by reading for a select group of friends. She shot into the limelight after a sitting with Ektaa Kapoor who's famously superstitious and who starts all her programmes with the letter K. 'I told her then she would succeed only as a television producer, but not as a filmmaker. She made my prophecy come true. She has innumerable hit soaps on all the channels but whenever she has tried to make films, she has failed miserably,' says Menon who says that her top clients have brought her fame and celebrity status. Both Johar and Kapoor are 'obsessive daily clients' who consult her on everything including losing weight.
But be prepared to dig deep into your pockets for a reading. The charges vary from reader to reader. Menon charges Rs 1,000 per session, Usha goes upto Rs 1,500 while Rani charges Rs 3,000 per session.
'The tarot is like a mirror we can hold up to help us see into our blind spots ' it takes what lies in our subconscious minds and lays it out in front of us, where we can see it more clearly,' says Usha, who emphasises that the reader should free her mind of colours before reading the cards.
How does it all work' The reader starts off with your birth date and then uses numerology before starting with the cards. Says Vaid, 'I ask my clients whether they have done any tarot reading before. I explain the cards to them. If they're not so comfortable with revealing themselves through the questions, I do a general reading for them. Usually, they start opening up gradually,' says Vaid.
Inevitably, tarot has its own share of rituals. When the reader starts a session, she lights candles or burns camphor to disperse the negative energy from the person receiving the reading. Because they are used frequently, the cards also have to be cleansed. Says Vaid, 'This process is known as 'clearing the deck'. It's individual to the readers as to how they clean their decks. Some sprinkle salt, while others might use crystals.'
Just for the record, there are about 300 different packs of tarot cards available in the market. 'When you go to buy a pack for yourself, choose the one to which you are instinctively attracted,' says Rani who owns 100 decks. Some of her interesting ones are the Pagan Tarot (which looks at women as witches and as individuals endowed with power) and the Goddess deck (that has goddesses from all over, be they Indian, American or African).
While some tarot readers would tell you about the future and the pitfalls to avoid, Vaid believes in only reading the past and the present. 'The past is what makes you what you are. And you have to let go of the fears of the past to move ahead in life, into your present' she says. She explains this by pulling out the Sword Card which is said to talk about an individual's past and consequently, about their fears.
The reader might use the three-card spread for you, which tells you about the past, present and the future. But there is no fixed spread. The reader goes by her intuition and spreads out the number of cards she thinks will provide the answers.
There is one thing the tarot readers do not predict however ' death. There is a Death Card in every deck, but it does not indicate physical death. It implies letting go of things, which the individual is hanging onto for security.
Is it all mystical mumbo-jumbo that tells small truths' But investment banker Sanjay Bansal, who was initially sceptical, is a new convert to the card game. 'I had an eye-opening experience as I had my cards read. I realised that while you cannot change the future, you can deal better with certain situations that come your way if you are forewarned through the cards,' he says.
At the end of it all, however, tarot readers emphasise that every person should get up from a session with the cards realising they are the masters of their own destiny. They can change or not change it according to their own free will. As Usha says, 'Only 80 cent of our life is predictable. The other 20 per cent can never be predicted. It's the magic of life.'
Photographs by Rupinder Sharma